It’s Ash Wednesday, and the world is a sore and bloodied place.
There are devils on the loose, it seems, crisscrossing the globe and weaving horror out of thin air. The television gapes, a twenty-four-hour funnel of cold, ineloquent frenzy. We clench and only half believe our luck that it’s always “them” beneath the bombs and bullets. Is there some balm, hyssop, or charm to keep the angel of death from our doors?
We watched orange overalls run red with blood, twenty-one Egyptian Christians slaughtered by razor-minded lunatics. The victims were migrant workers of humble means, far from their families, taken by force and destroyed by a deft and deep evil.
The following day, retaliations, and at least a half-a-dozen civilians reported dead.
In-between the body-counting, politicians climb atop the corpses and pound their chests.
already the names of the dead are forgotten. the tide came in, their blood now hopelessly mingled in an ocean of rhetoric and revenge.
These stories are not new: poor men becoming martyrs, reverends becoming generals, lunatics becoming kings.
One by one by one million, people taking sides. Across aisles and streets and parking spaces, we’re seeing infidels everywhere these days. Three young Americans, vibrant and ordinary and Muslim, blown from Chapel Hill into eternity, leaving their community on its knees wondering what it will take to be both embraced and left alone.
Black and white. And red.
So many claiming God for their side. And, somehow, he’s nowhere, we’re feeling.
It may be be enough, somedays, to make unbelievers of us all. What God could have faith in us, anyway?
I’m not Catholic, but I have many friends who are. Last year on this day, I accompanied a few to an Ash Wednesday mass. It was a strange thing, the way the priest flicked his thumb across my forehead, marking me with soot as I kneeled.
“for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It was an evening service, the paned glass around us dull for lack of light, their mosaics of holy wisdom dormant for the night. My friends and I shuffled out of the cathedral shrouded in a pensive quiet that lasted about 45 seconds before banter resumed. Perhaps this turn to levity was in part because we really wanted to forget what we just heard, to overlook the powder grey on each others’ foreheads.
It’s what we are, says the thumbprints on our faces. Not a cozy thought. But we’re all feeling a bit soiled these days, are we not?
And we don’t like to think about the end.
We’re born half-horrified over death. We’re all hustling, glancing behind us, hoping to keep ahead of the one thing we can’t outrun. My faith comes mostly from the way we always find a way to build, love, relish, and procreate in the shadow of our runaway clocks. The improbable impulse to remain, nurture, and protect.
Because we hold this unspoken faith in life, we posture ourselves for shock at the sight of savagery. We hate to see our brothers turned to dust.
Tonight Ash-observing believers will confront a mirror and see themselves marked for the same oblivion.
But they will wash their faces. They will fall asleep in the arms of loved ones, or the bracing escape of dreams. They will rise. Most of them will pocket their horror and maintain, at least for a few good hours, to walk the tightrope of normalcy.
This high wire act we call living, these measured, tentative strides through thin air — are these not some act of magic or faith? Do we recognize our defiance, our denial of the dust we are?
No, I’d say we don’t, and we can’t, most days. It takes all the vigor in our earth-born limbs to rise against the gravity and walk.
And when the seams show — when fellow man mingles his pulsing, fleeting marrow with the salt of murder and madness, falling from the taut stratum of reason and into criminal quest — our revulsion shows me that dust is not always silent.
Didn’t God say that the ground cried out when Cain fell, the first victim to fall at the hand of a broken brother?
“From dust we came, and from dust we shall return.”
Perhaps the dust that made us has been ever since bearing witness of the slain.
Perhaps our bones echo this outcry in the way we rage against the senseless killing around us.
The line between “dust to dust” is short, and may be shorter than we think. In the meantime, maybe the best we can do is remember there’s a little of Cain in each of us (and perhaps a drop of Abel?).
God heard the sorrow of the blood-seeped soil.
Have we been listening?